Making the Sign of the Cross
Discover the sacred history of this universal Catholic prayer
By D.D. Emmons
Among the most universal and public of all Catholic prayers is the Sign of the Cross. Walk into a Catholic church anywhere in the world, and you will see all who enter signing themselves; sit down for a meal in a Catholic home, and the prayer before eating begins and ends with the Sign of the Cross. In his book Talks on the Sacramentals, Father Arthur Tonne tells a story from World War II about a German village occupied by American soldiers. The villagers had no idea how they would be treated and thus feared for their safety. But their fears were belied when they witnessed two American soldiers stand before a crucifix, remove their helmets, and make the Sign of the Cross.
From birth, Catholic children watch as their parents cross themselves and say this most beautiful of prayers: “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” Priests often relate that Catholics, ill and in a state of semi-consciousness, will often attempt to make the Sign of the Cross when a prayer begins. We are sealed with this sacred sign in Baptism, mark ourselves with it during our lives, and claim it at the time of our death.
Every day when we get up, when we go to bed, when we are at Mass, when we pass a church, when we pray, and numerous other times, we trace the Cross on ourselves. Simply, we use this visible act to praise and call on Jesus at every turn in our lives. And the prayer is not new; in the year 211, in The Chaplet, the theologian and ecclesiastical writer Tertullian pointed out how people signed themselves in the duties of their day: “At every forward step and movement, at every going in and out, when we put on our clothes and shoes, when we bathe, when we sit at table, when we light the lamps, on couch, on seat, in all the ordinary actions of daily life, we trace upon the forehead the Sign.”
The works of numerous other great Christian writers in the second, third, and fourth centuries, such as St. Cyprian, St. Cyril of Jerusalem, St. Hippolytus of Rome, and Origen, further disclose that Christians made the Sign of the Cross often and everywhere. In 287, St. Fides (also known as St. Faith or St. Fay) was martyred for her faith. Reports of her torture spread through Christian groups, telling how she made the Sign of the Cross on her forehead, lips, and chest before she died. Passed down through the centuries, the Church so reveres this prayer that no blessing is complete without the Sign of the Cross.
Making this holy sign, Christians remember Jesus with arms outstretched, suffering for us at Golgotha. We recall how He died for our salvation and how He rose, offering us life eternal. The Trinity is honored in this prayer as we touch our forehead (the Father), our breast (the Son), and our shoulders (the Holy Spirit). St. John Vianney said a genuinely made Sign of the Cross “makes all hell tremble.” Today those in the Roman Catholic Church make the Sign of the Cross with the right hand, all the fingers pointing up, in recognition of Christ’s five wounds on the Cross. It is made by touching our forehead, our breast, and our shoulders, left to right. This method was not always the standard.
Among the earliest Christians, the Sign of the Cross was generally made on the forehead using only one finger, normally the thumb, similar to the small crosses we make today on our forehead, lips, and breast before the Gospel is read. For the first followers of the crucified Christ, this sign on the head indicated that an individual recognized Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross and that the person making it was a baptized Christian. Then, as now, Christians believed the Sign protected them from all evil, the devil, and his temptations.
The use of one finger continued until the fifth century, when a heretical group known as the Monophysites claimed that Christ possessed only one nature — that He was divine but did not have a separate human nature. Other Christians, in order to reject the Monophysites and affirm belief in the dual nature of Christ, fully divine and fully human, began to make the Sign of the Cross using two fingers, either the thumb and forefinger or the forefinger and the middle finger. To emphasize their conviction, they made a much larger Sign than previously, and did so with a prominent motion that involved their forehead, breast, and eventually the shoulders right to left.
Over the next few centuries and especially in the Eastern Church, emphasis was given to recognizing the Holy Trinity as well as the dual nature of Christ, and the use of three fingers was introduced. Recognition of the Trinity likely prompted the words, “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” or something similar.
For more than 1,200 years most Catholics made the Sign of the Cross in a like manner — that is, people in the Eastern and Western Church touched their forehead, their breast, and their shoulders, going right to left, with three fingers. Before he became pope, Innocent III wrote in The Sacred Mystery of the Altar, “The Sign of the Cross is made with three fingers, because it is imprinted under invocation of the Trinity… so that it descends from the upper part to the lower, and crosses over from the right hand to the left because Christ came down from the heaven to the Earth and crossed over from the Jews to the Gentiles.”
Other rationales for touching the right shoulder first is that “Jesus sits on the right hand of the Father” and that the right represents light and goodness, while the left represents darkness.
By the end of the Middle Ages, however, Western Catholics were making the Sign of the Cross using the hand in place of the fingers and touching the left shoulder first. Among the sources documenting this method and the rationale is a 15th-century devotion used by the nuns of the Brigittine Monastery of Sion in Isleworth, England, which stated that one should begin with the head and move downward, then to the left side, and then to the right. The devotion supported this form, saying that Jesus came down from the Father (forehead), was born as man (breast), suffered on the Cross (left shoulder), and ascended into heaven to sit at the right hand of the Father (right shoulder). This method became the standard in the Western Church. It is not clear why the changes took place or why they did not also take root in the Eastern Church, which continues using three fingers to make the Sign of the Cross and from right to left.
The Sign of the Cross reflects on the mystery of our redemption. It is a public confession of faith performed by saints, royalty and commoners, rich and poor. This simple yet pious act summarizes much of what Catholics believe. CD
D. D. Emmons is a freelance author from O’Fallon, Illinois. He and his wife are members of St. Nicholas Parish.
“The Sign of the Cross is the fundamental act of our prayer, of Christian prayer. Making the Sign of the Cross — as we will do during the blessing — means saying a visible and public ‘yes’ to the One who died and rose for us, to God who in the humility and weakness of his love is the Almighty, stronger than all the power and intelligence of the world.”
K BENEDICT XVI